A Mayan Legend at Uxmal – The Ancient Sorceress
One of the best things about visiting Mexico is taking the opportunity to explore some of the many Mayan temples and sites that are being discovered every day. There are many Mayan Legends in the Yucatan which centre around the Mayan cosmos of gods and goddesses, this is just one of these stories.
In the Yucatan one of those sites well worth exploring is called Uxmal. Uxmal is about an hour or so outside of Merida and is found on the Ruta del Puuc. It is a quiet, serene location which has an interesting history and is much easier to visit than Chichen Itza or Tulum.
The secret garden at Uxmal is known as the Templo de los Falos (Temple of Phallus) or Penis Temple it is known to those who manage to find it as simply the Penis Garden. There are many Mayan legends surrounding Uxmal (oosh mal) and its ruins on the Yucatan peninsula, and the most famous one is of course about the dwarf who built the Temple of the Magician overnight.
What I found more interesting was the legend of the old woman who gave birth or rather became mother to the dwarf and who is represented at Uxmal in a hidden garden that is full of penis statutes.
Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is only a short drive from Merida on the Yucatan coast of Mexico and the trip takes around 40 minutes by car but there are several tour guides that will take you out to the site.
Uxmal was founded about 500 by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutul Xiu, although the exact date of occupation is unknown. Most of the architecture visible today was built between about 700 and 1100. Unlike most Yucatan sites, Uxmal derived its water supply from man-made cisterns that collected rainwater, one of which can be seen near the entrance.
At 35 m (115 ft), the massive Magician’s Pyramid (Pirámide del Adivino) is the tallest structure at Uxmal. The pyramid is also known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf; both names derive from a legend about a magical dwarf who was hatched from an egg, grew to adulthood in a single day, and built the pyramid in one night, the “mother” of the dwarf was known as Ixchel and she has her own Pyramid and Temple. These are well hidden and most are unaware of the existence of these parts of Uxmal.
This area of Uxmal is hidden behind the Governors’ Palace and has not yet been reconstructed. The complex is known as the House of the Old Woman and it encompasses the Temple of the Phallus (Templo de los Falos or Penis Garden) with its fertility sculptures of penises and its interestingly chosen plantings of Mother in Laws Tongues. The penis garden is very well hidden and it won’t be pointed out by the Uxmal guides but you can locate it yourself behind the Palace.
The largest structure is known as the Pyramid of the Old Woman. It is crumbling, with vines and bushes growing between the stones. Few tourists visit here. The old woman is supposedly Ixchel. Called various names from the Witch to Grandmother, she is the legendary sorceress who hatched her dwarf son from an egg, and magically aided him in his contest to overcome the Uxmal ruler.
This is the legend:
Many hundreds of years ago, there lived an old woman, all alone in a tiny hut. She had no children, and no one to ask after her. The old woman would weep night and day for a child, but of course, with no result. One day she took an egg, wrapped it carefully in cotton cloth, and put it in a corner of her hut. Night and day the old woman looked after the egg, in the hope that maybe it would give her a child. But nothing happened, and every day the old woman grew more and more unhappy.
One morning, as she went to look at the egg, she found that it had broken – and in its shell sat the tiniest, loveliest baby boy that anyone could imagine. The baby saw the old woman and smiled and held out its tiny arms. The old woman was delighted – here at last was the child she had wanted for so long.
The old woman loved the child dearly, and looked after it so carefully and so well, that by the time it was a year old it could walk and talk as well as any grown up. But for some strange reason, no one knows what, the baby stopped growing. He remained as tiny as a one-year old for the rest of his life. He began to be called the ‘Dwarf’.
The old woman did not care. She still loved the baby devotedly. ‘You will be a great king one day, my child,’ she told him, sure that the baby was destined for great things.
One day the old woman said to the Dwarf, ‘Go to the king’s palace, my son, and challenge him to test his strength against yours.’
The Dwarf protested. ‘How can I challenge the king, mother?’ he said horrified. ‘He is greater and much stronger than I.’
But the old woman insisted, and the Dwarf was forced to do as she said.
The king smiled at the child’s challenge and asked him to lift a heavy stone. The Dwarf went weeping to the old woman. ‘How can I lift that heavy stone?’ he asked.
‘If the king can lift it, so can you,’ said the old woman, and sent him back to the palace.
And sure enough, the Dwarf was able to lift the heavy stone.
The king gave him many more tasks to do, but anything the king could do, the Dwarf could do as well.
When the king saw that this tiny little child could do whatever he himself could do, he was afraid, and very angry. He decided to get rid of the child by asking him to do something impossible.
‘Build me a palace taller and higher and more magnificent than any in my city,’ the King commanded the Dwarf. ‘You must do this in one night. If the palace is not ready by tomorrow morning, you will die.’ The King thought that the Dwarf would never be able to fulfill his command, and so would lose his head.
The Dwarf was terribly frightened. He ran home to the old woman and wept. ‘How will I ever build a palace that high or that magnificent?’ he cried. ‘I will surely die tomorrow.’
The old woman comforted the child and said, ‘Go to sleep, my son. It will be done by the morning.’ The Dwarf did as his mother said, and went to sleep.
The next morning he woke up in a beautiful palace, taller, higher and more magnificent than any in the king’s city. This is the palace the ruins of which can still be seen in the city of Uxmal.
When the king looked out of his window that morning, he saw the new palace towering up to the sky. He was amazed. ‘I must think of another way to get rid of him,’ he thought.
The king then sent for the Dwarf and asked him to collect two bundles of cogoiol, a sort of hardwood. ‘With one bundle I shall strike you on the head,’ said the king to the dwarf. ‘And if you survive, you may strike me on the head with the other.’
The Dwarf ran back to his mother, weeping and wailing. ‘The king wants to kill me,’ he said. ‘For how can I survive a blow on my head with a bundle of hardwood?’
The old woman told the child not to worry. She gave him two bundles of cogoiol and, placing a tortilla on his head, sent him back to the king.
The king had assembled all his ministers and the nobles of his court for what he hoped would be his triumph over the Dwarf. He took his bundle of wood and hit the Dwarf hard on his head with it. In fact, he hit the Dwarf so hard that the bundle of hardwood splintered into a hundred pieces. But the Dwarf stood unharmed.
Now the king was frightened. He tried to get out of the contest, but the ministers and noblemen insisted he keep his end of the bargain. They insisted the Dwarf hit the king with his bundle of wood.
The Dwarf did so, and at once the king died.
The assembled nobles and ministers and the people of the city who had come to watch the contest declared the Dwarf to be their new king. The old woman’s wish had come true – her little child was now a great king.
After this, the old woman disappeared. But is said, that far away in the village of Mani, there is a deep well leading to an underground passage. In this passage, beside a river and shaded by a great tree, sits an old woman with a serpent by her side. She sells water but accepts no money. But be careful before you buy her water, for she wants your babies in return, innocent children which her serpent devours.
This old woman is the Dwarf’s mother.
First published in The Three Princes of Persia, by Rohini Chowdhury, Penguin Books India, 2005
Copyright © Rohini Chowdhury 2005. All rights reserved.
If you are interested in more legends of the Mayan culture you can read about their “little people” the aluxes here. These small creatures have been known to cause havoc and damage all around the peninsula including some bridges and highways in the Cancun and Playa del Carmen areas.
Uxmal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, there are 34 sites in that list including 6 natural wonders which means that Mexico is 7th in the list of World Heritage sites. If you are interested in seeing more of Mexico’s World Heritage Sites you will find a great list and lots of information on Gary’s Everything Everywhere website and his piece on Mexico’s World Heritage Sites.
Uxmal is an incredibly peaceful place to visit, I much prefer it to Chichen Itza. There is no harassment by vendors and the place has a special magical air to it. Most of Uxmal has not yet been excavated but great care is being taken to maintain this spectacular Mayan site.
As an expat living in Mexico for a year I had the pleasure of experiencing many great Mayan sites. There is much to take in and explore in the Yucatan, from Mayan sites like Uxmal and its hidden garden, Dzibilchaltun and other Mayan legends. You can easily travel to Playa del Carmen and Tulum to explore the Caribbean side and experience cenotes and the superb Rio de Secreto.
Mexico certainly has something for everyone.
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